In the first mayoral election in 12 years with a true Republican on the ballot, November’s race is likely to shape up as the kind of liberal versus conservative clash of ideas that defined the pre-Bloomberg era.
If polls are correct, former deputy mayor and MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota will be nominated by the GOP to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Democrat and current independent who successfully ran three times on the Republican ballot, and whose politics generally range from liberal to moderate.
Lhota, a lifelong Republican is closely associated with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whom he served in City Hall from 1994-2001 in various jobs, including deputy mayor for operations.
Whether Lhota faces Democrat Bill de Blasio, the frontrunner heading into the election, or rivals Christine Quinn or William C. Thompson — vying for second place and potentially runoff contenders — the key issues in the race will be taxes and policing. (The results of Tuesday’s primary were not available as of press time.)
De Blasio wants to raise taxes on households earning more than $500,000 to pay for some education programs, while Thompson won’t rule out a tax hike as a last resort and Quinn has reversed herself on higher taxes for the rich, something she is now against.
Lhota pledges to keep tax rates as they are.
All three Democrats are critical, to varying degrees, of the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk practices, and would order amendments to procedures, while Lhota disagrees with the recent federal court ruling that as implemented it is unconstitutional.
“If it’s de Blasio and Lhota, the narratives are clear and distinct,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College.
He said a third key issue in the race will be a referendum on Bloomberg.
“One says there is a great deal wrong with the direction of the city and problems with policy and public schools and public safety and health, and we need a different orientation. Lhota, and to an extent Thompson and Quinn, say what’s happening has been a significant improvement in the quality of life” though more improvements need to be made.
Columbia University political science professor Ester Fuchs sees this year’s campaign as almost a throwback to the 1960s, when elections were all about increasing spending on social programs. But she notes that while in those days the funding came from state and federal sources, today the ideas are about obtaining new funding from within the city.
“De Blasio’s campaign implies that the city can fund more from its tax levy,” she said. “For the first time since the fiscal crisis, we really have ‘60s style liberal issues in the campaign. People believe the city is in good economic condition and that we can do more redistribution.”
She cited promises of more care for the elderly and additional affordable housing units, something all the candidates support. (Lhota wants to take over land from underutilized post offices for affordable housing, while de Blasio wants to wrest promises from developers to create low-income units before granting them land-use rights.)
Lhota would most likely rather run against de Blasio, Muzzio said, to appeal to more conservative Democrats by taking on the left-wing establishment. And in particular, Lhota would benefit from taking on de Blasio after a bruising runoff battle.
While primaries draw the party faithful, a runoff will draw only diehard Democrats, which means the candidates will likely veer left in that campaign, then have to shift back to the center in the general race.
“If there is a runoff, it’s going to be bloody,” Muzzio said. “Quinn or Thompson have to go all negative all the time, while Lhota sits back and raises money.”
According to Muzzio, the prospects of a runoff will depend greatly on the level of primary turnout not only for the frontrunners, but also for former Congressman Anthony Weiner and Comptroller John Liu, both of whom have been polling in single digits.
If either registers better than expected numbers, it could pull de Blasio below the 40 percent he needs to win the nomination outright. If, however, their backers largely assume their cause is lost and choose another candidate, or stay home, their combined share will be up for grabs.
“If Weiner goes down to 2 percent, some of that vote is going to go to de Blasio,” Muzzio said, adding that it was likely Liu has better support than polls show, for a variety of reasons. He noted that one Siena College poll showed that Liu had zero support in his home borough of Queens. “That’s impossible. My gut tells me Liu finishes fourth.”
The outcome of the race may not be known for days, because the Board of Elections decided to use aging, mechanical voting machines rather than risk computerized machines that malfunctioned in the 2012 presidential balloting. However, widespread problems were reported across the city with the machines as well as with staffing, suggesting there will be a large share of paper ballots to be counted. (Lhota filled out a paper ballot when he voted at Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights.)
The last time New York saw a runoff election for mayor was in 1977, when Ed Koch easily defeated Mario Cuomo to win the nomination after a bruising primary that vanquished incumbent Democrat Abe Beame.
In the campaigns of the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, racial tension played a role in the discourse as Koch faced criticism over his response to bias crimes such as the 1989 Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, murder of Yusuf Hawkins, helping elect David Dinkins the first black mayor. The 1993 election hinged heavily on the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, riots two years earlier, which contributed to Dinkins defeat. In 1997, activist Al Sharpton was a serious contender for the nomination and faced questions about his role in Crown Heights and the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. He was defeated by Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger in a close race that narrowly avoided a runoff. Giuliani that year was a lightning rod for criticism from black leaders who felt he had no relationship with the minority community.
In those races Jewish voters clearly took sides, with Crown Heights weighing heavily in calculations as they felt a stake in strong policing. This year there is no significant issue or major differences between the candidates for Jews. A review of Jewish statistics in the last three polls by Quinnipiac University showed almost equal support for Quinn, Thompson and de Blasio, though a large margin of error for subgroups make those figures unreliable. Politically potent Orthodox figures have endorsed both Thompson and de Blasio.
In an interview Tuesday, Messinger said that while racial tensions have largely subsided in the 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, there remain huge gaps in perception about fighting crime, as well as what she termed economic tension.
“Tension is logical in city with a tough economy out there,” said Messinger, now president and director of the American Jewish World Service. “Some people are clearly doing better than others. But one thing that has injected an element of visible division in the electorate is stop and frisk … whatever position you take, I know from 20 years in government and from talking to people in different communities that how police are seen is radically different in minority communities and in the rest of the city.”
De Blasio wants to tax the rich to fund more afterschool programs, which Fuchs sees as a ploy to win the primary since such a measure would require the approval of the state legislature, half of which is controlled by Republicans. Increasing property taxes, as Bloomberg did early in his tenure to boost the 9/11 recovery efforts required no state approval, she said. “It’s designed specifically to attract the more left-leaning voters,” she said, noting that millionaires already pay about 40 percent of the city’s tax revenues.
“There’s no question that de Blasio has moved the political conversation in the primary to the left, and that’s fairly typical,” she added.
Fuchs, a former advisor to Bloomberg, said that in the general race both sides will try to move to the center. The question surrounding Lhota will be whether New Yorkers want to go back to the Giuliani years (though Lhota has a far more temperate manner than his ex-boss and current backer) while the question for de Blasio, should he be the nominee, will be whether he can reassure the public that police reforms won’t lead to an increase in crime.
“De Blasio hasn’t targeted the poor, he’s targeted the middle class, and when you target the middle class you have a better chance of being able to reframe your message” for the general election, Fuchs said.